Antigone – June 2012

6/10

By Sophocles, translated by Don Taylor

Directed by Polly Findlay

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Tuesday 19th June 2012

The modern setting was obvious as soon as we looked at the stage. Three office cubicles, glass-fronted, were on the back of the revolve, with several desks and chairs scattered about the rest of the stage covered with files, anglepoise lamps, and assorted office equipment from typewriters and reel-to-reel tape machines through to laptops and TVs. Above all this were hung round light fittings, some of which were broken, revealing the bulb (low energy, of course). One desk was front and centre, with a young man watching what turned out to be a TV screen, and underneath it all was that low frequency droning sound which is used, far too often, to create a sense of threat. It also creates a sense of nausea and a headache in those who are susceptible to such things, including me, so not the best of starts.

The droning stopped a little before the action started, thank goodness, and then, with a huge crash which startled a number of us, the play began. The young man snatched up the phone, spoke to someone, and then another chap rushed in, followed by more men, with Creon emerging from the centre cubicle, I think. They moved the desk and gathered round it, and like the American officials watching some US military action via satellite, these men watched as their side won the final battle of the civil war. Much celebration all round.

While they partied, the set swung round to show the back of the cubicles, which consisted of a curved, textured wall with two passageways between the cubicles. Antigone emerged from one of these passages, clearly upset at the carnage she’d just witnessed – I presume she’d been spying on events, although I didn’t see her on stage for the opening scene. Her first lines, addressed to Ismene, were unintelligible, partly because she was facing away from us, partly because the music was a bit too loud, and partly because I wasn’t clear what accent she was using, so it took a while to tune in. (RP has its advantages.) Antigone and Creon were definitely from the north of England, though everyone else seemed to be fairly Home Counties, as far as I can remember.

Apart from this early dialogue, the lines were pretty clear, and I enjoyed the freshness of this translation. It did lose some aspects of the poetry, but the meaning was very clear throughout, and there were some choice modernisations, such as Creon’s use of the word ‘administration’ when referring to his own government of Athens. The story was told precisely, with no significant cuts or rearrangement, and although I do find the final stages less interesting, when there’s just the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth to get through, this production told a powerful story well. I did find the gaps between scenes a little too long, but there were some good bits of business, such as Antigone’s arrest procedure – searched, photographed and hands secured with a plastic tie. The soldier reporting the ‘burial’ of Polynices’s body was good fun – a nice performance from Luke Norris – while Jamie Ballard was excellent as Tiresias, getting a round of applause as he left. His makeup seemed a bit excessive to me – did he really need to have some kind of skin complaint plastered over his left eye? – but the performance got past all that.

Christopher Ecclestone was also very good as Creon. He had the politician’s arrogance, and while I’ve often felt the injustice of Antigone and Haemon dying when it’s Creon who’s offended the gods, this time I was aware that the play is more about Creon, his choices and his suffering, as a moral lesson to Athenian men not to displease the gods. Luke Newberry as Haemon was also good, and it was nice to see Paul Bentall as a military man trying to advise Creon to do the right thing.

The chorus and other characters were fine, so it was only the emphasis on detailed realism that held my enjoyment back today. If anything, the set was too elaborate, with too much going on for the tension to build properly. For example, I noticed the tape recorder during one interrogation scene, because a bit of tape was sticking up and was going round and round; this didn’t add to the experience for me, and in general I find that a lot of modern productions make this mistake, confusing ‘reality’ with ‘truth’. So although it’s a good production, it wasn’t my favourite by a long way.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Oedipus – November 2008

8/10

By Sophocles, translated and adapted by Frank McGuinness

Directed by Jonathan Kent

Olivier Theatre

Saturday 15th November 2008

What a journey we had to get here. The road past Haywards Heath station was closed off, so we had a long detour to reach it another way. Then there were roadworks outside Waterloo East that made us take another detour. At least, I thought, the Lyttelton performance will already have started, so the Ladies will be relatively empty. Not so; the Lyttelton performance was also starting at three o’clock, and the place was hoatching (Heaving, adjectival description of a busy location – Wikipedia). All this, and having to put our rucksacks into the cloakroom, meant we made it to our seats with only a few minutes to spare. Still, as I told Steve, if we think we’re having a bad day, what about Oedipus? How we chuckled.

The set was fantastic, though I was a little distracted by its brilliance. We’d seen the dome taking shape in the workshops during a backstage tour, and now we could see it completed. It filled the centre of the Olivier stage, and was tipped slightly forward. The surface was like weathered copper, slightly roughened, and with patches of copper colour mixed with the green. It reminded me of a globe map, with the copper as land and the green as sea. There was a large doorway towards the back, facing the audience, with two vast metal doors between chunky posts and lintel, and to our left, near the front of the stage, was a long table with two matching benches. Panels at the back of the stage opened about four times when people arrived, one on each side, and each time there were trees on display. The first time they were all silver, the second time vultures had been added, and the third time they were golden autumn colours. The fourth time they were blasted stumps. (I hope they’re mentioned in the playtext, as I can’t remember exactly when they happened.)

The set used the slow revolve to perform a complete circle during the course of the play, finishing shortly before Oedipus arrives, covered in blood, for his final speeches of suffering. The table and benches didn’t move at all, however, and this was what distracted me briefly, as I looked for the groove that had to accommodate whatever was supporting the table. I spotted it fairly quickly, and I also noticed some of the chorus, when they were sitting on the benches, having to adjust their feet from time to time as the floor passed underneath them. Still, it was only a minor distraction.

The chorus was very good, with plenty of singing, chanting and speaking, often interleaving their lines. I thought the translation/adaptation was excellent. It kept the feel of a Greek tragedy, with some nicely poetic rhythmic lines, but also introduced some apposite modernisms, such as Creon saying he’d hang every terrorist. There were fine performances from Ralph Fiennes as the man who curses himself, and Clare Higgins as the mother who finds she’s married her son. Both were over-confident and scornful of the gods and prophecy, only to find the truth too much to bear. The other characters  were also very good, especially Jasper Britton as Creon, who, despite his apparently sincere declaration that he wasn’t seeking the top job, looked remarkably comfortable in the role once he’d got it. Also Alan Howard was powerful as Tiresias, the blind seer who gives Oedipus his first cryptic warnings of the doom to come. The question was asked several times, if Tiresias was so smart, how come he didn’t spill the beans a lot earlier and prevent all this suffering? Thebes is in a pretty bad way, crops not growing, women not having proper babies (buckets of blood were mentioned), and food apparently rotting in folk’s mouths (I assume this was poetic rather than literal). There’s no satisfactory answer to this question, except that Tiresias serves Apollo, so we’ll just have to assume that Laos, the previous king and Oedipus’s daddy, upset Apollo big time, and that’s why the entire family, and the country, suffers so much.

For Oedipus’s final appearance, the doors dropped down, and the panels at the back slid open to reveal emptiness. Oedipus gets a brief chance to be with his children, hugging his two little girls, before being sent inside on Creon’s orders, away from the public view. Creon tries to stop the girls from helping him, but I noticed that the elder – Antigone, I assume – escapes his clutches to lead her father off (she’ll defy Creon again, but that’s another play). The stage is left to the chorus and one or two of the other characters. As the chorus spreads out across the stage, the lights dim, and finally go out.

I love the way Greek drama is so direct. The characters speak lines that would rarely, if ever, come out of ordinary people’s mouths, yet, like Shakespeare’s poetic dialogue, they can be so much more moving. Also, we get to hear all sorts of arguments and points of view debated and discussed. We do also have to put up with unpleasant violence and lots of deaths, but on the whole I think it’s a fair price to pay, especially as performances tend to come in under two hours. This production was well worth the effort to get here.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Burial At Thebes – June 2008

8/10

Sophocles’ Antigone translated by Seamus Heaney

Directed by Lucy Pitman-Wallace

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Friday 27th June 2008

This was a very good version of the Greek tragedy Antigone. The language was formal and declamatory for the most part and every word came across clearly. The guard who reported the un-desecration of Polyneices’s body was the only one who spoke in more conversational English and with an accent, differentiating him nicely from the toffs.

The set was very plain. What looked like wooden panels, worn and battered, curved round the back of the acting space, with a central doorway for entrances and exits. There were irregularly shaped holes where there would have been knots in the wood. Centre front was a large bowl, spotlit.

The play opened with two men taking scoops of sand from the bowl, and then backing off to the sides of the stage. Antigone and her sister then tell us what’s been going on. Oedipus their father married his own mother (Greek drama has a way of going to places most other plays avoid) and his children, who are also his half-siblings, are still suffering for his sin against the gods. Their brothers are both dead, one fighting for Thebes and one against. The pro-Theban brother is being given full honours while the other one is being disgraced by not having a funeral rites. Apparently this means he won’t get his heavenly Oyster card and will be doomed (I think that’s the gist). Antigone is all for disobeying the order to leave her brother’s body to decompose naturally, but her sister is too scared to go against Creon’s command. Creon is their mother’s brother and the new king, so what he says goes or else. Antigone isn’t put off – she knows the dangers, but she also knows the duty she has towards a brother and the gods. She’s a tough nut, that one.

Creon appears next, giving an excellent speech designed to win the loyalty of his new subjects. It’s all smarm and charm at this point, but it isn’t long before the paranoid control freak shows through. There’s a bit of concern amongst the gathered bigwigs about the decree against the burial, but Creon soon smoothes that over. However when the guard turns up to tell Creon that someone has carried out the funeral rites for the dead man, he starts to go all Gordon Brown on us (stroppy and authoritarian, that is).  He’s convinced ‘they’ are out to get him, and that some rich people have bribed the guards to turn a blind eye to the funeral rites. He tells the guard to bring him the guilty party or he’ll be strung up instead. Naturally the guard’s a bit miffed by this, and decides to run away.

Now we’re introduced to Haemon, Creon’s son, in song. As the chorus sings of his great abilities and virtues, the character demonstrates these in mime. This is just a short intro – in fact, I don’t think I got his name at this point – and then we’re into Antigone’s arrest by the guard and the hearing before Creon and the chorus. Creon shows little pity – he thinks women should stick to the home, never mind disobeying him or carrying out a funeral service. It doesn’t seem to bother him that it’s his niece he’s condemning to death, though it does disturb the chorus. Mind you, their main concern seems to be that she’s engaged to Haemon, and how will he take it?

Very well, apparently. After Antigone has had her say, insisting that following the gods’ instructions is more important than obeying the whim of a mere king, she’s taken away to be walled up in a cave. Her sister did try to be noble and join her in her final prison but Antigone rebuffs her – if she didn’t do the crime, she doesn’t do the time. Creon keeps changing his mind about the sister – she’s for the chop, then she isn’t, then she is. Anyway, when his son arrives there’s some friendly words of warning from some of the chorus, but Creon’s not listening. At first, his son speaks up for his father in total support, as a good son should in ancient Greece. This gladdens Creon’s heart, but it doesn’t last. Before long Haemon is suggesting very strongly that his dad should reconsider – better to admit a mistake than upset the gods.

Well, Creon’s not having that, so disaster is pretty much assured (as if there was any doubt!). Tiresias, the blind seer, turns up and his advice is so pointed and so clear that even Creon begins to doubt his actions. He sends people to release Antigone and to tidy up what’s left of the corpse, but too late. Eurydice, Creon’s wife, appears just in time to hear the sad news of Haemon’s death. He stabbed himself after hanging Antigone (or she got him to hang her, whatever). If these people hadn’t been so keen to die all might have been well, but then it wouldn’t be a tragedy. Eurydice is ominously quiet and heads off to top herself, and Creon drags on his son’s dead body – Eurydice’s arrives a few minutes later – for the final weeping and wailing. The play ends with the whole group assembled on stage in near darkness, with just the bowl at the front spotlit.

This was absolutely great. The cast worked brilliantly together. Various actors would discard assorted sheets and blankets to emerge as a character, then re-robe to blend back into the chorus. There wasn’t any humour (which is why I tend to be flippant in my notes) but I don’t expect any in a Greek tragedy, and the intensity of emotion was just right for me. The translation was excellent and very understandable, with a good rhythm and tone that seemed perfect for the tragedy style. One of the best things we’ve seen here.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me